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In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” We are still fighting that war today. According to many people, we’ve lost but don’t know it. Rates of drug use in the US remain, by historical standards, high and our prisons are full of people–many of whom are hardly drug kingpins–who have violated drug laws. And, of course, it all costs a fortune. What to do?

In her book The War on Drugs in America, 1940-1973 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), historian Kathleen J. Frydl argues that there is a better way to control drugs. She points out that prior to the “War on Drugs” the Federal government had controlled the distribution of narcotics and other drugs largely (though not entirely) by means of taxation. The “Federal Bureau of Narcotics” was a branch of the Department of the Treasury. The run up to Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and the war itself changed all that: enforcement of drug laws was transfered to the Department of Justice. Essentially, the Fed had criminalized drug distribution and use and told the states to aggessively pursue distributors and users, or else.

According to Frydl, this was a disastrous move. Better, she says, to de-criminalize and even legalize drugs, control them by means of taxation, and support prevention and treatment initiatives. It’s a controversial position, and near the end of the interview we debate it at some length. I hope you enjoy the discussion.


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